Monday, February 1, 2016

Did St. Peter give him a mulligan?

I changed the name and fixed the punctuation, but otherwise here is the first sentence of an obituary that ran recently in my local newspaper:

"On Tuesday, January 26th, Don Newbert finished his final round of golf and entered God's great Club House. He played strong and courageous right through the final 18th hole. It was the best round of golf he ever played."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Of course you already knew this, right?

A Facebook friend pointed out yesterday that the word "automysophobia" means "the fear of being dirty."

This would make a great spelling bee word.

Of course, to have this in a spelling bee you would have to have a sample sentence.

I wonder whether a sample poem would be OK:

Otto was her boy toy.

She had automysophobia.

But when he stopped using Lifebuoy,

She said, "Otto, I'm so over ya!"

Monday, January 4, 2016

Newsroom memories: Wendy and me

Part One

Near the end of another night shift more than 30 years ago, a man named Rollie walks toward the copy desk. He is carrying a piece of paper and wearing a devilish grin.

Rollie is in charge of what is called the Telegraph Desk, which handles copy from the AP, UPI, the Los Angeles Times and maybe one or two other wire services. This piece of paper is from one of the many wire service machines that sit in a nearby room, tapping out the day's news.

Within a few years these machines will be removed and the paper will get its news by satellite dish, but Rollie's department will still be known as the Telegraph Desk for a few more years, perhaps out of habit and perhaps because nobody wants to answer the phone by saying "Dish Desk!"

Rollie hands us the piece of paper. It is a news story. At the top of the story is a note from the wire service: "Editors: Note nature." Translation: Be very careful about running this story lest you get a slew of angry phone calls -- or worse, an unhappy note (to put it mildly) from your bosses.

No one will argue that this story merits that note. It is about a man who went to a hospital for an operation to have something removed but afterward found that, um, something else had been removed.

Of course we're not going to run the story, but news folks are inclined to gallows humor -- helps them cope with the awful stuff that they find out about during the course of the job -- and the story makes the rounds of the desk as people try to come up with a headline for it.

Mine is "No jack, no play makes man a dull boy."

Part Two

It is some months later, and I have been reassigned to the Telegraph Desk. Rollie is now my boss.

It's a Monday night, and the person on the desk who handles the makeup chores in the composing room has Monday nights off, so I have to fill in for her.

During this era, the job of makeup editor is one of the most unsung tasks in journalism. I eventually get to the point where I am good at it, but as the automation of the newspaper business proceeds inexorably, the time will come when this will be like saying that I can make a top-notch buggy whip as well as anybody else.

Being makeup editor means that after taking care of my regular duties -- editing the people news and the weather report and laying out and editing stories for a few more pages -- I have to go out to the composing room, where printers are pasting up the next day's pages, and troubleshoot problems for the next couple of hours, often at breakneck speed, always under deadline pressure.

Among other things, I have to keep an eye on what is called the "slop class page." It is many years before Craig and his list and other Internet desperadoes will raid newspapers everywhere and steal most of their classified ad business, so there are still a lot of ads to be pasted up, and for the next day's paper they are pasted up on deadline.

Because of this, you never know exactly how much space these ads will take up until close to the last minute. In anticipation of this, someone from the ad department usually calls the managing editor with an estimate during the afternoon. These estimates might be right on the money or a little off either way.

Tonight the estimate is way off, and I suddenly have a big hole to fill, maybe two columns by 14 inches. I need to find a way to fill that, and fast.

I rush back to the newsroom and find that Rollie has placed a story on my desk. He often does this if it's an update to a story I've been handling, or if it's something else he would like to get in.

The story is about Wendy O. Williams, a singer, who has been arrested and accused of obscene behavior. More precisely -- but not too precisely -- police say she inappropriately placed her hand microphone in a certain place on her body.

From glancing at the hard copy I know it'll be enough to fill that space, so I call it up on the computer, do a quick edit, slap a headline on it, push a few buttons and send it to the composing room so we can make the headline.

And by now I'm sure you're way ahead of me: The story was one of those "note nature" stories (can't remember whether that note was on top of it, though it might have been), and Rollie had put it on my desk just for my amusement.

And you won't be surprised to find out that when I returned from the composing room a little while later, laden with page proofs but flushed with pride after meeting yet another deadline, Rollie took one look at the "slop class page" and, in a voice that I can still hear 35 years later, said:

"You put THAT in the paper?!"

I don't think we received any angry calls, and we didn't get a note from the executive editor because he almost certainly never saw it. Our newspaper at that time had five editions, and at the earliest opportunity we replaced the wandering microphone with something that was less likely to make the boss cough up his Cream of Wheat.

I wish I could say this was the only time I ever messed up in what used to be called the newspaper game.

There was the time I wrote "China" in a headline instead of "Japan." (Or was it the other way around?) Or the time I put together an obit for Ira Gershwin, with a good picture, a story edited to a fare-thee-well and even a sampling of his lyrics.

My supervisor said it was a very nice package, well laid out and all, but, um, it never said the guy died. (Luckily, we again had time to fix it.)

And there was the time that one of our star columnists, who often ran caption contests whose winning entrants received special T-shirts, misspelled “T-shirt” and I didn’t catch it.

Yes, that misspelling.

It's just as well I never became a surgeon -- my prowess in the O.R. would probably have been enough to convince that poor guy in Part One that he'd been let off easy.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Let's just say I'm more than willing to take her word for it

“When we were doing our dance lessons together, I’m pretty sure he sweats from his butt first," Jennifer Lawrence told KISS FM in an interview about working on "Silver Linings Playbook" with Bradley Cooper.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Christmas Eve memory

When I was a kid I really liked board games. And that’s an understatement.

Monopoly. Scrabble. The Game of Life. Parcheesi. You name it, I probably had it.

And I was especially nuts about games that were based on TV game shows. We had the first edition – and many others – of “Password,” “Jeopardy!” and “Concentration.”

I even had first-and-only editions of TV games that didn’t last that long, including “Get the Message,” a Goodson-Todman show hosted by a guy named Frank Buxton, who was also the co-host of an ABC kids’ show called “Discovery” that I watched every weekday.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Buxton at an old-movie festival.

I told him that I once had the home game of “Get the Message.”

“I didn’t even know they had a home game,” Mr. Buxton said.


I probably got a new game every Christmas. My parents used to hide the stuff downstairs. But I got wise one year when I happened to look down there and see, sticking out from the side of a table, the Ideal toy company trademark – confirming that yes, my parents had indeed bought me the home version of ABC’s “Seven Keys,” hosted by the great Jack Narz.

As we six kids got older we either figured out or were told somehow that (Spoiler alert!) there was no Santa Claus.

So my parents would bring the swag up on Christmas Eve.

I especially remember one such night when my mother emerged from the basement and came toward me holding out a big, rectangular box, with an equally big smile on her face.

The game was “Risk.”

“I knew you wanted it!” she said, and her happiness at giving me what I wanted so badly was so great that I couldn’t bear to tell her that I never wanted it at all.

I’d seen “Risk” advertised, of course, but the goal of the game – which was, basically, conquering the world territory by territory – never appealed to me.

And when we started playing the game, I still didn’t like it much – it was basically, for all its cards and “men” and big board, a dice game. I couldn’t get into dice games. Yahtzee? Not me.

So why did my mother think I wanted “Risk”? As the years passed, I still could never bear to ask her.

I did notice that one of my brothers always seemed to play the game with special enthusiasm. Were I possessed of anything remotely resembling a brain, I would have picked up on the fact that this was a Clue (which happens to be the name of a game I did like, though it took me some years to figure out how to figure out who the killer was, and please don’t tell Mystery Writers of America that or they’ll drum me out of their group with a blunt instrument).

Years later, my brother fessed up: He had told Mom that I “really wanted” “Risk.”

And years later, I still have no urge to invade Irkutsk.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

At the (old) movies: 'On Moonlight Bay'

After I noticed that this movie was on the local cinephile society’s schedule, I was reminded of a guy I used to know.

This guy -- I'll call him Al -- was in his sixties when I knew him and was married to a woman I'll call Arlene. They were my older brother and sister’s godparents. Arlene was also my mother’s godmother. Arlene and Al themselves had no children.

In the 1920s Al was a reporter on the newspaper where I later worked. In the 1930s he became a police captain through the good graces of his friend the mayor. If what I remember my mother telling me is correct, they must have been exceedingly good graces indeed, because she said Al came to the force as a captain; apparently he never walked a beat. That must have set real well with the rank-and-file.

Al retired in the 1960s and died a few years later. In the late 1970s, after I had joined the newspaper, I looked up his clip file just for the heck of it.

And I got a heck of a surprise. For along with the usual “longtime police officer retires after decades of service,” there were earlier clips that showed that Al’s retirement came not too long after a woman he had questioned during a case accused him of making a pass at her.

I asked my mother about this, and she said yes, Al did consider himself to be something of a ladies’ man, even if the ladies themselves saw him as something worse than that. Faced with the possibility of being alone with him, most of them went out of their way to stay out of harm’s way.

Poor Arlene.

Al also fancied himself to be a poet, and over the years he wrote what was supposed to be light verse (it was really not so much Ogden Nash as Ogden Gnash) and submitted it to the paper, where he still had friends who would publish it. After he retired, he self-published a book of this verbiage and brought a copy of it over to our house.

I still remember my uncle, himself a published poet of some renown, reading Al’s book and laughing his ass off. He later showed it to a friend, who, after perusing a bit of it, said, “Was it meant to be doggerel?”

As if this weren’t more than enough, Al also thought himself to be quite the piano player. Arlene and Al didn’t have a piano, but it was not unusual for him to sit down at our Story & Clark and torture the ivories.

He never needed to be asked. Then again, I don’t remember anyone ever feeling the need to ask him.

And he seemed to know only two songs.

One of them was – you guessed it – “On Moonlight Bay.”

I like to think that I am nothing if not a fair person, and as I was heading out for the cinephile show, I was not about to let the sins of a semiliterate sexual harasser be visited upon this charming 1951 film from Warner Bros.

Then again, “On Moonlight Bay,” at first glance, is not the type of movie I like much. It begins during what was supposedly a simpler, more innocent time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. It stars two people who are substantially older than the characters they’re playing. It’s set in a small American town, but it might as well be in Never Never Land.

But in spite of this, the film works, and the audience and I had a good time.

Why does it work? I can think of at least three reasons.

The first is that the screenplay was co-written by Melville Shavelson, who was one of Bob Hope’s better writers, back when Hope was actually funny. Shavelson also was the key writer behind “My World and Welcome to It,” a sadly short-lived TV series based on the works of James Thurber.

The second reason is that its stars, Doris Day and Gordon MacRae, are so charming that they almost wheedle you into suspending your disbelief.

The third reason is the supporting cast, made up largely of folks I used to see all the time on TV and in movies, a class of performers that I fear I and others took for granted: the character actor. In this case, they are Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as Day’s parents, Mary Wickes as a (surprise) maid and Ellen Corby as Day’s brother’s schoolteacher. Talk about typecasting: None of these actors had to stretch themselves much, but they certainly weren’t phoning it in, for they each played their roles better than practically anyone else could have played them.

One bonus: Billy Gray as the boy. I saw him for years as the teenage son on “Father Knows Best.” He was quite good in that, but in “On Moonlight Bay” he shows a talent for comedy that I didn’t know he had, and that sadly doesn’t seem to have been used to its full potential as his career continued.

Earlier I mentioned that the audience had a good time. One reason I like to attend the cinephile programs – even if I’ve seen the movie before -- is to see how the audience reacts. Normally I suspect this film would have gone over moderately well.

But sometimes one person’s reaction can goose the others into enjoying a film even more.

I’m particularly thinking of the scene in which Day is dancing with MacRae. Before the dance, her mother has stuffed a couple of powder puffs into Day’s dress, in an attempt to heighten (or maybe deepen) Day’s appeal.

You won’t be surprised to know that the puffs eventually fall out, and at the worst possible time. The gag was staged well – director Roy Del Ruth was a comedy veteran – and it caused a woman sitting near me to literally screech with delight, and caused the rest of the audience to fall like dominoes as they loosened up and laughed with her and kept laughing throughout the picture.

Would they have laughed so hard if the screecher hadn’t been there? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

A sequel to “On Moonlight Bay” was made a couple of years later, with the same basic cast but with a different director and different writers.

“On Moonlight Bay” proved so popular with the cinephile audience that the society might show the sequel next year.

The name of the sequel is “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” which – have you guessed it? – also is the name of the only other song that good old Al ever seemed to know.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A mysterious holiday tradition

You've heard of "the gift that keeps on giving"?

This is the gift that I keep on giving:

"The Afternoon Before Christmas," a mystery story that I wrote some years ago.

I've sold it several times, most recently to the wonderful folks at "Over My Dead Body," and you can read it here.

I often link to this story at this time of year, and I hope you'll give it a try -- or even read it again, if you like.

I hope you will enjoy it, and I hope you will feel free to let me know what you think of it. All comments accepted -- even those made of coal.